Thalia Estrada has worked for four years to earn a 3.5 grade-point average at St. Paul Central High School.
But when it comes to going to college, she worries that her good grades won't be enough to overcome one simple fact: She's an undocumented immigrant.
"Just because I'm undocumented, my GPA means nothing," she said during a state Senate committee hearing on Thursday at the State Capitol.
Estrada was one of two young undocumented immigrants who testified before the Senate higher education committee in support of a bill that would make it possible for undocumented students who meet certain criteria to pay in-state tuition rates at all Minnesota colleges and universities. The bill would also allow them to apply for state grants and private scholarships.
If the Legislature passes the bill, Minnesota would join 12 other states in offering in-state tuition to eligible undocumented immigrants. Other states that have passed similar laws include California, Kansas, Nebraska and Texas.
No one spoke against the bill at Thursday's hearing, which ended with the committee voting unanimously to send the measure on to the Finance Committee. Opponents of such measures have in the past argued that providing free or discounted services to illegal immigrants is unfair to citizens who obey the law and pay taxes, and can create a cost burden if the benefits are paid for by tax money or price increases borne by other consumers of education.
More than 100 people, many of them students who are undocumented immigrants, packed the hearing, some wearing graduation caps made of blue construction paper.
Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, who teared up while testifying, said the cost of out-of-state tuition often stops many high-achieving undocumented immigrants from going to college after high school. She argued that Minnesota's economy depends on an educated workforce and that it would benefit everyone to allow young immigrants who have grown up in the state to further their education.
Bill's future is uncertain
According to the bill, for immigrants to qualify for the lower tuition rates and access to financial aid, they would have to have attended a Minnesota high school for at least three years and graduate, and they'd be required to file an affidavit with a college saying that they have applied to legalize their immigration status or will do so as soon as possible.
Pappas called it a good "first step." It's too early to tell if the bill has enough traction to make its way into law.
Estrada told the committee about her dream of becoming a neurosurgeon. Originally from Peru, she came to the United States with her family when she was 5 years old. Her status as an undocumented immigrant makes her ineligible for some private scholarships, she said. "I'm scared to see how I will pay for college," she said.
Francisco Sanchez, 18, told the committee that he came to the United States when he was 12 and bought the Rosetta Stone computer program to learn English. He said at the hearing that he plans to go to community college and then transfer to a four-year university. A high school senior, he would be the first one in his family to attend college, he said.